Upshaw died late Wednesday night of pancreatic cancer only three days after being diagnosed with the illness. At the time the 63-year-old Hall of Famer was at his home in Lake Tahoe, Calif. with his wife.
Willie Brown, a Raiders assistant coach who roomed with Upshaw when both men played in Oakland, spoke at great length about his long-time friend following Thursday's practice.
"I knew Gene probably better than anybody," Brown said. "His family, my family, being roommates all those years, we shared a lot of stories together. You could just see the qualities he had to be a leader in this organization. He was a captain all those years and I was a captain. We knew each other inside and out because of the things he wanted to do and things I wanted to do."
Brown maintained regular contact with Upshaw over the years and the two men regularly laughed while remembering old times together. But Upshaw, who recently had been having problems breathing according to his wife Terri, never let on about his health problems.
"Knowing how tough he was he probably didn't want to bother anyone with his problems," Brown said. "He held onto it without letting anybody know. That's Gene. He had enough problems of his own and didn't want to bother people with his problems."
Raiders owner Al Davis remembered Upshaw as the consummate leader, as a player and as executive director of the NFL Players Association.
"The Raider organization, the National Football League and the world have lost a great man," Davis said in a statement released by the team. "Gene Upshaw's career successes as a professional football player and a union leader are unparalleled. He is as prominent a sportsman as the world has known. He was and will remain a part of the fabric of our lives and of the Raider mystique and legacy. We loved him and he loved us. We will miss him. Our hearts go out to Terri and the boys."
Art Shell, who with Upshaw formed one of the most dominant offensive line duos in the history of the NFL when both were with the Raiders during the glory years of the 1970s, said it was an honor to play alongside Upshaw.
"Gene was a true pioneer as one of the few African-American leaders of a major union," Shell said. "He was the equal of owners in negotiations and made the league a better place for all players. Playing alongside of Gene was an honor and a privilege. He was a pillar of strength and leadership for our great Raider teams. It is gratifying to know that Gene's memory will live on as a member of the pro football Hall of Fame."
Upshaw became executive director of the NFLPA in 1983 and led the players through several contentious negotiations with the owners. Most recently Upshaw came under fire and heavy criticism from former players who felt as if the NFLPA hadn't done enough to address their health concerns.
Brown defended Upshaw, who he said had to be talked into being a player rep long before he assumed the top job with the players association.
"Gene wanted nothing to do with it," Brown said. "When I was elected to the board of directors I told Gene, ‘Gene, you have to be the guy, you're the guy, be the player rep.' I finally convinced him that he should be the player rep. I just kept pushing Gene. ‘You've got to run this organization, you have to be head of the union.'
"He was a guy you'd never hear about all the good things. When people want to drag dirt or bring up dirt about someone they can dig it out of him. You won't find a better person in terms of taking care of former players than Gene Upshaw. Gene would do whatever is best for the players. You hear all the older players who gripe and complain that we should have better this or better that … they wouldn't have what they have today if not for Gene Upshaw."
Raiders react to Upshaw's death
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